Foreign Students Face Challenges

Homesickness, language barrier confront international students

Mihaela Pacurar ’06 remembers how hard it was to fit in during her freshman year here.

A foreign student from Romania, Pacurar recalls that everyone around her related to each other easily, “forming small communities.”

“As an international student you might feel that you couldn’t really be a part of any of these communities—what you left behind is still with you,” she says.

Pacurar is one of the 545 international students at the College, who make up about 8.31 percent of the undergraduate population—a number that has steadily risen over the last decade.

When these international students arrive as freshmen, many have their own unique concerns: homesickness that reaches beyond American borders and language differences that are constant reminders of living in a foreign land.

“Everyone in America asks ‘how are you?’ but they don’t really mean it and you feel that if you started explaining, no one really wants you to explain it,” says Pacurar.

International students are more hesitant than other students to seek help, according to a report released by the Student Support and Assessment Committee of the University Student Health Coordinating Board in July 2002.

“Misunderstandings about the American system of health care and services offered by the University Health Services, as well as some isolated incidents of insensitive treatment, appear to be discouraging some international students from seeking medical care,” the report reads. “Adapting to American culture and our educational system is stressful and international students may be reluctant to seek help in a timely manner.”

At the College, the Harvard International Office provides mainly administrative support for these students, while the Woodbridge Society for International Students assigns upperclass mentors to help international students with adjusting to college life and America.

There are no current counseling services specific to international students beyond these two groups, despite the report that came out more than two years ago.

BEING INTERNATIONAL

Ekua K. Nkyekyer ’07, who arrived from Ghana, says “you can’t always put your finger on what exactly is different about being here, but you can sense it.”

Undergraduates from abroad need to deal with a different education system, language barriers and being far away from home.

“It’s really difficult because everyone expects you to be alright after the first week of school,” says Woodbridge President Lukasz Strozek ’05, who is from Poland. “Homework every week, midterms, some people are not used to that.”

“In a lot of countries,” says Snezhana B. Zlatinova ’07, who is from Bulgaria but whose family lives in Beijing, “you’re not expected to speak up; you’re expected to be more modest.”

Zlatinova chairs Woodbridge’s support committee, which runs the mentor program and oversees the three-day Freshman International Program (FIP).

Coming from Romanian classrooms where she struggled sometimes to get academic guidance, Pacurar says she likes how at Harvard, “resources are extremely available.”

However, Pacurar found the Core Curriculum surprising: “I didn’t expect that there would be mandatory classes.”

M. Suzanne Renna, acting director of the Bureau of Study Counsel, says issues can also arise if students aren’t speaking in their own language.

“Language kind of defines the ways in which you can express yourself, emotionally as well as intellectually,” she says. “Sometimes you feel as if you can’t truly be yourself or be known for yourself.”

Most international students say that adjusting to these differences is an individual process.

“You have to realize everyone’s making adjustments, some more than others, some things...you need to do on your own,” Nkyekyer says.

Alexander Arapoglou ’06, who hails from Greece, says this adjustment isn’t exclusive to international students.

“We’re all adults, we’ve come to a place we’ve never been to before,” he says. “We all go through the same things.”

Pacurar says she found solace in the friends she made.

“You have to do a really good job of finding the friends that you need, maybe they remind you of what you left behind while at the same time being here,” she says.

INTERNATIONAL AID

The Bureau of Study Counsel has offered counseling workshops for international students in the past, but they did not generate much appeal, Renna says.

“If you’re a Chinese student you can join the Chinese association, you don’t necessarily need to come here for that,” she says. “International students don’t see it as a concern in being an international student, the concern is with adjusting to being here.”

Instead, Renna says they prefer to join groups that aren’t exclusive to international students.

“In my experience, I’ve had more luck with groups based on an issue of some sort rather than based on an international identity,” Renna says. Groups such as “Creative Relating” or “Speaking Up in Class” are more attractive because students “don’t want to identify being an international student as something they’re working on; they’re working on lots of things,” she says.

But Renna says the Bureau always welcomes suggestions for forming groups: “We’re very happy to do something on a grassroots basis, if people would like a counselor to mediate discussion.”

Zlatinova says that while roommates or friends might suggest seeing professional help, “the idea of turning to a professional when they have problems isn’t something international students are used to.”

In College of the Overwhelmed, Chief of Mental Health Services (MHS) Richard D. Kadison writes about how some students come from cultures where “it is unacceptable to talk to strangers about personal feelings,” while others “may feel that mental illness brings shame to their families.”

Kadison says that MHS, which is the other major on-campus counseling resource besides the Bureau, is working to make help more accessible to international students.

“We make efforts to connect with various groups on campus and have dialogue about ways we can simplify health care and reduce the stigma so students will access care,” he writes in an e-mail. This past week, MHS met with the Mental Health Awareness and Advocacy group to work on reducing the stigma. In the fall, MHS explained to incoming international students how to access health care and discussed the possible differences with other countries. In addition, MHS holds workshops with community health initiative members in the houses and receives feedback from peer counseling groups, Kadison writes.

Anecdotally, international students seem to be more at risk for suicides. Out of the seven suicides that occurred at the College since 2002, two were committed by international students. Sinedu Tadesse ’96, who was from Ethiopia, killed herself and her roommate in May 1995, and Marian H. Smith ’04, from Luxembourg, committed suicide in December 2002.

In response to a question on the number of international student suicides at the College, Renna says she hopes all students would seek help, but even when services are provided they often don’t come.

While efforts are being made towards better outreach, students say Woodbridge provides them the closest contact of the support groups.

“There’s an international organization [Woodbridge] but no international student counseling to help you adjust to this place,” says Kanittha Tambunlertchai ’05, a native of Thailand.

WOODBRIDGE

After being admitted, most international students receive a welcome call from a current Harvard student, courtesy of Woodbridge’s mentor program.

“You have an older sibling who is generally from where you come from, tells you useful academic and other facts, and is the same person you get to know throughout that half year or so before you come here,” says Zlatinova, who oversees the program.

In addition to the mentor program, Woodbridge organizes FIP, which is financed by the international office and occurs just before freshman move-in. “It’s the first welcome you get after a long flight, jet leg, questioning from immigration officers about visas,” Zlatinova says.

During FIP, international students attend academic and nonacademic panels composed of Harvard staff and Woodbridge members. On the panels, staff from the international office explain information about immigration and visas, while Woodbridge members talk about life at Harvard.

“We help them get organized with books, banking, rooming and roommates, places to visit in Boston and health care,” says Strozek.

Zlatinova thinks these activities help international students start school better informed, which makes the adjustment to college life easier.

“In FIP, you might be totally lost, but there are another 60 people around you who are just as lost,” she says.

Pacurar says she opted not to attend FIP when she arrived at Harvard, but “just knowing that it exists...made me aware that at Harvard there are many international students, and both the administration and other international students are there to help me.”